Kids and Racism

Continuing on the topic of social activism and children, one of the most interesting parenting challenges I’m facing is figuring out how to integrate racial sensitivity/anti-bias education into our family life.

Many of our parenting choices are based on the Waldorf philosophy, which places great value on the wonderment of childhood. In practice, and as I wrote last week, this means protecting childhood from the burdens of adulthood so that children can deeply and freely be children. In other words, it feels like a violation of childhood to tell our children that black people are being murdered by police officers. Of course this is an extreme example – we don’t have to tell our children that black people are being murdered in order to bring conversations about race into our daily lives. But even so, I admit it is a struggle for me to talk to my children about race.

However, all the research shows that talking to children about race from a young age is necessary in order to raise anti-bias children. For those invested in the Waldorf world of childhood reverence, this can be difficult to accept. After all, if we revere childhood as a time of wonderment, and as parents and educators we seek to create a warm, beautiful, and loving environment that is protected and secure, then when, where, and how do conversations about racism fit in?

I’ve gotten the impression that Waldorf education, in general, does not encourage overt and explicit conversations about race with young children. It is also fairly common for white parents – whether invested in the Waldorf philosophy or not – to feel uncomfortable discussing race with their children (Derman-Sparks & Ramsey, 2006).

But Rudolph Steiner, founder of the Waldorf education movement, had the goal of inspiring “individuals to take up a path of inner development, and to give practical guidance in creating the seeds for a new culture of true human freedom” (WECAN). This goal not only provides space for racial sensitivity/anti-bias work within a Waldorf approach, it also obligates us to bring this work to our children, especially if we truly want to achieve a new culture of true human freedom.

As I reflect back on the work I’ve done on this issue so far, I realize that I started out with the question “Do we” rather than “How do we” bring racial sensitivity /anti-bias education to young children. Viewing childhood as I do, the idea of bringing conversations about racism to my young children feels uncomfortable. But over the past year, I’ve attended workshops, read books and articles, and participated in discussion groups, and from this work, two main points jump out at me as especially salient in moving from “Do we” to “How do we.”

First, children as early as kindergarten discriminate according to gender, race, and disability. Children are “developmentally prone to in-group favoritism… the attribute they rely on is that which is most clearly visible… once a child identifies someone as most closely resembling himself, the child likes that person the most.” (Bronson & Merryman, 2009, p. 53).

Dr. Rebecca Bigler, a professor of psychology at University of Texas at Austin, ran an experiment in a kindergarten class to look at how this tendency for in-group preference plays out. Half of the kindergarten children were given blue t-shirts, and half were given red t-shirts; the children wore their t-shirts everyday for three weeks. The teacher never mentioned, pointed out, or grouped children according to the t-shirts. During the three weeks the children played with each other regardless of t-shirt color; however, at the end of the three weeks, children liked their own color better and believed the children in their own color group were more likely to win a race, be smarter, and be nicer. They also believed their color was a better group to belong to.

Bigler concludes, “We might imagine we’re creating color-blind environments for children, but differences in skin color or hair or weight are like differences in gender – they’re plainly visible. We don’t have to label them for them to become salient. Even if no teacher or parent mentions race, kids will use skin color on their own, the same way they use t-shirt colors” (p. 53).

Study after study shows the same tendency for in-group preference. Regardless of how we view childhood or what measures we take to protect our children from the concept of racism, children will develop biased views according to skin color. If adults and educators say nothing about race children will develop racial preferences.

Second, no matter what measures we take to protect our children from the concept racism, racism is an institution and it is impossible to protect our children from the system that we are all a part of. Here are just a few examples of how my white children will experience the institution of racism:

  • Most of the books and movies my children are exposed to will feature main characters who look like them.
  • When my children go into a pharmacy, they will be able to find Band-Aids in their skin color.
  • My children will be able to shop alone without being followed, harassed, or suspected of shoplifting.
  • Society expects that my children will go to college, and when they are in their twenties, society will assume they are college educated.
  • When my children rent their first apartment, they can be pretty sure their neighbors will be neutral or pleasant to them.

(adapted from McIntosh, 1990)

None of these statements are true for a person of color; and these are just a few examples of how the institution of racism affects all of us, whether we live in a diverse community or a community that is mostly (or all) one race. My family experiences being white as a privilege, but "white privilege" is an unjust system and detrimental to society as a whole; breaking down the institution of racism and achieving racial justice is the goal. In order to succeed, we need to bring racial sensitivity/anti-bias education to our children.

So here I am faced with a duality: on the one hand we subscribe to the Waldorf belief that childhood is to be revered and protected from adult concepts, and on the other hand, research consistently shows that in order to raise anti-bias children, we need to talk early and openly to our children about race.

I am sure it is possible to bring anti-bias education to children in a way that still preserves the reverence and wonderment of childhood. As I dig deeper into this issue, my focus is on the question, “How do we talk to our children about race in a way that feels comfortable within our parenting approach and is effective in breaking down the racial institution that currently cripples our society?”

I don’t have answers yet, but as I said in the beginning of this post, I find this type of question – the kind that calls on a blend of intellectual discernment and parental instincts – to be interesting and inspiring. I am fortunate to be taking on this work with people who come from different parenting approaches – those who hold dear the Waldorf values and those who do not – and who bring a wealth of knowledge about racism, anti-bias education, and childhood development.

I do believe we’ll learn a great deal as we explore this topic and share our knowledge and resources with each other and within our community.


Bronson, P. & Merryman, A. (2009). Nurture shock: New thinking about children. New York: Twelve.

Derman-Sparks, L. & Ramsey, P. G. (2006). What if all the kids are white? Anti-bias multicultural education with young children and families. New York: Teachers College Press.

McIntosh, P. (1990) White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. Excerpted essay reprinted in the Winter 1990 issue of Independent School.

Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America.